Safin victory worth the wait

Stephen Bierley in Paris
Monday November 4, 2002
The Guardian

The Russian fulfils his potential with a crushing victory over No1 Hewitt.

Marat Safin joined the illustrious trio of Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Boris Becker when he won his second Paris Indoor Open title here at Bercy yesterday, defeating the Australian world No1 Lleyton Hewitt 7-6, 6-0, 6-4.

It was the 22-year-old Russian's first title for 15 months, and a final too far for Hewitt, 21, whose recurring virus problems have undoubtedly affected his play since he was beaten in the US Open semi- final by Agassi in September.

The last time Hewitt lost a five-set match in straight sets was in the 2001 French Open when he was beaten by Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero, and nobody had taken a set off him to love since the Italian Open two years ago. But at least his efforts over the past week appear to have ensured that he will retain his position as the world's leading player at the end of the season.

The year's final tournament, the Tennis Masters Cup, begins in Shanghai a week tomorrow with Hewitt holding a substantial points lead over Agassi, his only rival for the top spot. And if Hewitt gets to the final in China, Agassi cannot overtake him, even if he beats him. "I think Lleyton will be the world No1, and he deserves to be," said Safin.

Before yesterday the Russian's year had been one of missed chances, none more so than in Melbourne last January when he lost to Sweden's Thomas Johansson in the Australian Open final. Had he won there Safin, the US Open champion in 2000, might well have gone on to dominate the game, but his confidence deserted him and, try as he might, he could not add to his previous 10 career titles. That is, until yesterday.

Autumn in Paris, when the boulevards are thick with fallen leaves, appears to bring out the best in Safin, for this was his third final at the Palais Omnisport in the past four years. And Australians are good for him too. Having lost to Agassi in 1999, he defeated Melbourne's Mark Philippoussis the next year, although that victory needed a tie-breaker in the fifth set.

Becker, with three Paris Open Indoor titles, remains top of the list, with Safin now snuggling up with Agassi and Sampras, all with two. Perhaps, like that trio, Safin will win Wimbledon one day. Nothing is beyond the compass of this young man's power and talent. The one doubt is his temperament, although on this occasion he was calmness personified.

"You know Lleyton will fight and fight and fight until you break. If you show him that you are broken, the match is finished," said Safin, who will return to this stadium at the end of the month when Russia play France in the Davis Cup final. The only differences will be the surface, which will be clay, and the level of crowd support against him.

Safin's is a high-risk game, because he rarely goes for percentage shots. This may change as the years pass, but for the moment he is very much dependent on confidence, and when he arrived in Paris it was not terribly high.

"I was frustrated. I felt I was almost there, but finally I have done it. It was a big present from Lleyton."

If this was an acknowledgement that Hewitt was some way short of his best, it was a view that Hewitt confirmed. "My expectations were not that high this week, and if I hadn't been playing for No1 the chances are I probably would not have come. I had to try and get some runs on the board, which obviously gives me a little more confidence going into Shanghai."

Not that it was a gimme for Safin. The two had met six times previously and were tied at 3-3. The Russian has been striving for greater variation in his serve but, when he squandered a break in the opening set to allow Hewitt back from 3-1 down, it appeared the old inconsistencies were resurfacing. "I had a lot of chances to get back into the match but when you give Marat a start he's very tough to peg back," said Hewitt, referring to the loss of that first set.

Thereafter Hewitt's resistance was little more than cosmetic. "I think the second set was just perfect for me," said Safin, who appears likely to finish the year as the world No3, having dropped out of the top 10 last year. "Sometimes you have great days, some days are a little more difficult. But I'm enjoying my sport and I'm happy to be here in Paris instead of cleaning the streets in Moscow. It's wonderful to win again, especially at the end of the season."

Cedric Pioline announced his retirement from the sport at 33 after he and Gustavo Kuerten lost the doubles final. Pioline reached two grand slam finals, losing to Pete Sampras in the US Open in 1993 and again at Wimbledon in 1997. He was also part of two French Davis Cup triumphs.

November 04, 2002
From Neil Harman, Tennis Correspondent in Paris

Safin finds his best form to put Hewitt on the run.

IT WILL be a lot different the next time Marat Safin takes to the twisting staircases of the Palais Omnisports de Bercy. Yesterday, he was the star of the show. In 26 days� time, he will be the sworn enemy and the teeth of the French will be bared to him.

Safin claimed his first tournament title in 13 months when he drove ever-widening holes through the famed defences of Lleyton Hewitt, the Wimbledon champion, to win the ninth and final Masters Series event of the year, the BNP Paribas-sponsored event here, in a manner that recalled his sustained brilliance at the US Open in 2000.

How the French devoured his every move, for there is something about this enigmatic Cossack that finds favour with the most discerning palate. He knows, though, that they will be happy to spit him out when Russia face their beloved team in the final of the Davis Cup in the last weekend of November.

That is how it goes in sport and Safin is the first to acknowledge that while this was a wonderful day for him personally, there will be a good deal more on the line when he crosses swords with Arnaud Clement and Sebastien Grosjean.

The 22-year-old Muscovite was in the kind of mood this week that makes him such an impossible person to peg. He has filled the rubbish bins of the most revered courts of the world with bent rackets, venting his angst against all and sundry, but here � for reasons that probably escape him � Safin was a model of calm assurance. Only Nicolas Escude, the conqueror of Tim Henman, took a set from him in five matches.

For someone of Safin�s ability to go so long without a championship asks inevitable questions about him wasting the gifts with which God endowed him. From first until this exceptional end, he had struggled, losing in the final of the Australian Open to Thomas Johansson, suckered in straight sets in the semi-finals at Roland Garros by Juan Carlos Ferrero, tied in knots at Wimbledon by Olivier Rochus, of Belgium, on the first Wednesday, and out on his feet after a five-set marathon against Nicolas Kiefer in the first round of the US Open to be easy fodder for Gustavo Kuerten in the second.

Since then, Safin has hardly had a moment to breathe, flying from Tashkent to Moscow, from Hong Kong to Lyons (via Moscow again), on to Madrid and finally Paris to collect the points that would assure him of another long-haul flight, to Shanghai for the Tennis Masters Cup. His 7-6, 6-0, 6-4 unscrambling of the best scrambler in the world yesterday not only placed the icing on his tour cake this year but would have been music to the ears of Andre Agassi.

The complex mathematics of the qualifying process � illustrated by the fact that Henman missed out on the trip by four points across a year in which tens of thousands are on offer � means that Hewitt will succeed in winning the race for the second successive year if he reaches the final in Shanghai. Should the Australian stumble along the way, Agassi still has a chance of overhauling him, but it would need him to hold off challenges from five of the best eight players in the world this year.

And Safin is going to be in the field, preparing to wreak his own havoc on proceedings. It is hard to believe that he can play like this for two weeks on the trot. �I don�t think this could be much better,� he said. �If you show Hewitt that you are broken, the match is finished. Even in the third set, at 5-3 love-40, three match points, he played some great tennis.

�Of course, I want to win Shanghai, I want all the money, all the points, be happy and also win the Davis Cup. I think I can do it. My tennis is 90 per cent risk, I open the court, go down the line. If you don�t feel well, you are not confident, you miss by this much (holding thumb and forefinger a millimetre apart) and it takes weeks to get that confidence back.�

The final yesterday turned on the 15-minute second game of the second set. Safin had edged the first on a tie-break, having seen a 4-1 lead whittled away by defiance at its most Hewitt-like, and broke the Australian�s opening service game in the second. Safin saw off three break points � one with an extraordinary reflex forehand played just above the net cord � and raced through to claim the first love set against the world No 1 in 2? years.

Hewitt was never quite fully there. He has been troubled by debilitating viral conditions for the best part of two years, which makes you wonder what he might have achieved on his full physical rations. �I just wanted to come here and try to get some runs on the board,� he said. �It is a big thrill simply to get through to the final. I�ve got other things on my mind at the moment.�

It is about holding on through a week in China for which he will know his round-robin opponents on Wednesday. Safin presents a threat there, too. �I am enjoying the sport I�ve been playing since six,� he said. �It is better than cleaning the streets of Moscow.�